Royal Armouries

1883 - 1995

Into the White Tower

The demolition of the New Horse Armoury building, which had housed the ‘Line of Kings’ from 1827 to1882, was completed in about 1885. The display of armoured figures seated on carved wooden horses continued to be one of the site’s top attractions and it was now enjoyed by visitors on the top floor of the White Tower. This floor had large light wells at this time, allowing daylight into the rooms below, so the Horse Armoury was laid out around these features, which had distinctive railings made out of real swords and pistols. Not long after the Horse Armoury was installed in the Council Chamber, electric lighting was introduced to improve visitors’ experience of the exhibition.

The popularity of the new display is reflected in the variety of picture postcards, which from about 1900 onwards provide many different views. The Yeoman Warders no longer led groups of visitors around the Horse Armoury but they had the right to sell postcards of the Tower which many visitors bought as souvenirs, keeping them in albums. Other cards were sent by post to show friends or family the sights that they were missing.

A Centre for Study

As well as continuing to develop as a very popular visitor attraction, the Tower Armouries was gradually emerging as the national centre for the scholarly study of arms and armour. After decades of unsuccessful attempts, a curator with academic knowledge of the subject was at last appointed in 1895. Viscount Dillon was the author of many books and articles and he set about carefully researching the collection, which had previously been in the care of the War Office Storekeeper and his assistants. The task was challenging as ‘…a huge mass of rubbish and spurious armour were allowed even then to remain amongst the historic and genuine specimens. It is only since Lord Dillon undertook the great task, on which he is still engaged, of re-arranging and re-cataloguing the arms and armour in the White Tower, that it can be properly studied and appreciated’. Dillon retired from the curator’s post in 1913 and was replaced by another armour scholar, Charles ffoulkes. By the start of the First World War in 1914 almost the entire White Tower was filled with Armouries displays.

Combining popular visitor appeal with academic research into the the history of arms and armour, the displays were improved and better catalogues and guidebooks published. The royal armours and the carved horses remained important attractions, sometimes arranged like a procession, sometimes in a row along the walls. Some were even moved to different rooms, depending on whether they were exhibited chronologically or by type. Occasionally it was necessary to dispose of one or two of the 17th-century wooden horses which had become rotten, adding modern replacements instead.

In the 1970s and 1980s restoration work on selected 17th-century horses provided opportunities for research into their materials and construction. This showed that they differ greatly internally and are rare survivals of carvings by leading craftsmen of their day. At the same time, research by Dr Alan Borg at The National Archives identified orders and invoices from their commissioning, as well as tracing early visitor accounts and printed guides. After many decades when the ‘Line of Kings’ was divided, interest grew in recreating a Horse Armoury in the White Tower.

The Horse Armoury through time

Since its creation the Horse Armoury has occupied several locations within the Tower of London complex, explore the map to discover more.

Explore the Horse Armoury through time in a larger map